Locating the Protestant Ethos: A Short Narrative of Low Renaissance Painting

Name: Samyabrata Das

Class: UG II

Roll no. : 49

The Reformation in 1517 ushered in an era of political and religious tensions in Europe. While painting as a form of art was restricted to the domain of Catholicism and Catholic values, painters influenced by Protestant ethics began incorporating these ideals in their works. Hence, the grandiose renderings of scenes from the Bible were derided, giving way to simpler, symbolic style of fusing the religious values with those of the mundane world. The trend gradually gained momentum and a group of skilled artists from the Northern countries hailed a new mode of painting called ‘Reformation Art’[i]. The fundamental ideas of Protestantism were subtly reflected in the paintings of these masters who marked a departure from earlier schools of painters though occasionally borrowing certain styles of presentation from them.

In the last quarter of the 14th century artists in Europe began to try their hands at a much more realistic depiction of human lives, daring to depart from the traditions of painting prevalent in Late Middle Ages. The first instances of this break were evident in the paintings by early Netherlandish painters who dealt with themes of everyday life juxtaposed with panoramic renderings of landscapes in the background. They had the unique ability to fuse the divine with the mundane to create a sensational visual effect. They were adept in detailing too, with impeccable pictorial representations of furniture, embroidery and the agents of nature. The idea of linear perspective and its application in paintings wasn’t something which the medieval painters employed in their artworks. It was the Early Netherlandish painters like Robert Campin and Jan Van Eyck who emphasized the role of perspective in painting scenes from everyday life. Wealthy merchants and aristocrats acted as patrons to them, which provided financial support. Majority of the paintings were made on wood panels using a mixture of oil colours and egg-tempera, a gelatinous medium considered as a useful invention of that period.

For proper understanding of the changes that occurred in the 16th century, it becomes necessary to look at the paintings of the preceding century. Robert Campin, Jan Van Eyck and other pioneers had already set the wheels of change in motion in their celebrated paintings by bringing in thematic and symbolic variations. Campin’s Merode Altarpiece finished in 1432, is a revolutionary work rich in symbolisms with flamboyant use of colour and detailing.


1.jpgFig 1, the Merode altarpiece


The Merode Altarpiece is one of the first paintings which dealt with the theme of Annunciation in a stylized and innovative way. The painting consists of three panels, traditionally called a triptych. The central panel depicts the figure of Mary reading a book and archangel Gabriel conveying the news of the birth of Christ. The most radical feature of the central panel is the background which shows the interiors of a quintessential Flemish household in detail. The right panel shows Joseph working with his tools and the left one presents the patrons of the painting who stand at the door with an expression of veneration. It is clear that sequence of three panels portray scenes which occur at the same moment[ii]. Barely visible at a glance, there is the symbolic figure of Jesus who is led by seven beams of light through the window. It sends the message of the birth of God’s son in Mary’s womb. Campin’s innovation rests in the fact that while the Annunciation scenes usually portrayed the interiors of a Church in the background, he juxtaposes the Biblical narrative with a very mundane background. This was perhaps, a step towards the reduction of Biblical characters to their life and blood forms. Kneeling at the doorstep, the patron and his wife become first-hand witnesses to the scene which conjures up the idea of looking at divine happenings through the eyes of an individual. The painting therefore can be looked upon as a forerunner to later traditions.


At the outset of the 16th century painters like Joachim Patinir, Pieter Brueghel of Flanders and Albrecht Durer of Germany ventured into the sphere of painting scenes from daily life with a religious message embedded in them. In Pre-Reformation era, the Northern renaissance paintings were made on wood consisting of two, three or more panels which formed a single altarpiece. With the advent of iconoclasm, an offshoot of Protestant faith, ornate paintings adorning the interiors of Churches were taken away. The traditional setup of painters working on paintings to be put up on churches was done away with and patrons emerged who financed the painters to create paintings meant for personal possession. This shift in purpose allowed the painters to explore more realistic themes and allowing reality to confront with Biblical narratives. The Protestant churches no longer commissioned the paintings of glorified, larger than life Biblical phenomena.

Joachim Patinir had the knack of portraying vast landscapes set against certain narratives from the Bible. He is known for using the three-colour formula to enhance the effect of linear perspective. All the paintings ascribed to his name are landscape paintings, each with a nuanced religious colouring. He is credited for being able to pull distant spaces together to create a pictorial unity.  His repertoire is replete with paintings that depict the confrontation of the human world with the divine cosmos. The Biblical narrative of the flight into Egypt is a recurring theme in his works. The subject remains untouched but the landscapes in the background change drastically, allowing the viewer to assimilate into the panoramic North European topography. Patinir’s St. Jerome in the desert shows a scene from the narrative of Jerome’s pilgrimage near Bethlehem.


Fig 2, St Jerome in the desert

A humanized portrayal of the saint is emphasized by the landscape stretching into the horizon. A monastery on the left and the rugged topography of the surroundings constitute the background. Jerome’s image is that of a sacrificial saint living a life of hardship in desolation. The significance lies in the fact that the painting doesn’t glorify or idolize the figure of the saint, it allows the observer to construe the meaning of a narrative tale in lieu of the landscape and surroundings. The presence of the city and the monastery in the background emphasizes the tensions between religion and the secular cultures of the city[iii].

Another painting of considerable reputation, attributed to Patinir is the Rest on the Flight to Egypt.



Fig 3, Rest on the flight to Egypt

The Rest on the flight to Egypt presents the Biblical tale of Mary’s journey to Egypt escaping the army of Herod who wanted to massacre all the newborn babies in his empire. The painting succeeds in demystifying the Biblical narrative by conflating scenes from a common countryside with the divine beings in the foreground. Patinir however gives the observer a glimpse of a distant city which Mary and Joseph have left behind with their newborn baby. The painter, by putting the stress on the background stamps out the importance of the divine elements it depicts.






Fig 4, the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorra

Patinir’s The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorra harps on the Biblical account of God’s destruction of the ancient twin cities of Sodoma and Gomorra. As the Biblical story goes, both of these cities were repositories of impenitent sin and lack of virtue. Patinir’s artistic rendition shows the diminutive figures of Lot and his two daughters being escorted by Angels out of the devastated city. According to the Biblical narrative Lot’s wife stands at the centre, turned into a pillar of salt. Patinir, the maestro of landscape painting depict the scene in blaring colours to assert the feeling of destruction. The heroic divinities of the Bible stand at one corner of the painting, reduced to minute figures which only assist the viewer in his understanding of the painter’s message.

Pieter Brueghel the elder widely regarded as the ‘Peasant Brueghel’ for his interest in upholding the lives of ordinary peasants living in Flemish villages. He came to prominence in the aftermath of the Reformation and was able to separate the landscapes from a long standing tradition of iconography to achieve a palpable and realistic vision of the natural world. Working in the post-Reformation era Brueghel was more concerned with portraying religious imageries from a humanitarian point of view. ‘Genre painting’ which has scenes from ordinary life as subject matter made a name for itself through the works of Brueghel. There are no heroes in Brueghel’s paintings. The individual subject is replaced by the mass-a celebration of humanity. There Though Brueghel scarcely used religious themes in his paintings; a few of his works are based on religious parables or narratives in the light of contemporary cultures.



Fig 5, the parable of the blind leading the blind

The Parable of the blind leading the blind’ is a signifier of Brueghel’s experimentative attitude towards the representation of a parable ascribed to Jesus in the Bible[iv]. The parable harps on the comparison between spiritual blindness and physical blindness. If a blind person leads another blind person, both having no sense of direction will fall into a ditch. This idea is taken into account and portrayed with its literal meaning by Brueghel. Brueghel shows six men lined up in a row with the blind man who is supposed to be the guide falling into a ditch. The painting is a study of the different stages of falling with the expressions on the faces of the men changing from trust to surprise to shock in a sequence. Brueghel seeks to highlight the consequences of misinterpreting the message of Christ, clearly an indicative of Protestant ideology that associated Catholicism with vanity and hypocrisy.  The Church in the background gives impetus to the anti-Catholic strains in the painting. It gives the viewer a message that religion when misinterpreted can lead to dire consequences.



Fig 6, Procession to Calvary

 The Procession to Calvary plays on the classic Biblical narrative of Jesus collapsing under the weight of the cross while being carried towards the spot of execution. The first thing that comes to one’s mind is the transformation of the scene into a tragic incident of daily life. The painting is dotted with myriad number of people scattered everywhere, overshadowing the primary importance of the scene. With the lone exception of Jesus himself, Brueghel portrayed everyone else in the frame in Flemish traditional garbs. Brueghel deliberately distances John the Baptist and Mary from the main site to build on the idea of naturalism and realism in paintings. Brueghel shows how things happen in reality, leaving his viewers to draw the conclusion that Man’s awareness does not extend to the existence of a higher level of spirituality. He invites the spectator to inspect the characteristics of each and every individual present in the painting who are engaged in their respective activities. This approach contributes to the fragmentation of the central theme and its intermingling with mundane cycles of life. Interestingly, the surroundings are more similar to a Flemish countryside than Golgotha in the Bible. Brueghel ceaselessly infuses elements of his contemporary period to add a tinge of politics and social elements in a supposedly Biblical narrative.


Fig 7, the massacre of the innocents

As the name suggests, The Massacre of The Innocents[v] is Brueghel’s reworking of the Biblical tale of the cruelty Herod inflicted upon innocent children out of paranoia. He has devised a new setup by borrowing narratives from Bible and transposing it into a modern, political setting. In this painting Brueghel condemns the warfare and brutality in general using the Bible as a source of inspiration. In keeping with the political instability in contemporary Flanders, Brueghel’s rendition sends a strong moral message to the viewer. The horsemen were perhaps modelled on the Spanish cavalry who had a reputation for brutality and torture.  This painting is unique for its incorporation of political elements in renaissance painting.

Albrecht Durer, one of the stalwarts of renaissance art in Germany devoted himself to Protestantism towards the final years of his life. Though Albrecht Durer adopted the styles of Northern European renaissance, he was an ardent admirer of his Italian counterparts Durer had access to the pioneering theologians and men of intellect like Erasmus, Luther and many others. Durer paid tribute to these remarkable personalities by painting brilliant portraits of them. He travelled extensively through parts of Netherlands and Italy to broaden his outlook towards life. Durer was a self-proclaimed Protestant and his sympathy towards the new religious order is exemplified in his paintings. Some of his paintings overtly indicate the tenets of Protestantism, spread across Europe during the final years of his career.


Fig 8, the Four Apostles

The Four Apostles was finished in 1526, when the Protestant values were in full swing in Europe. The painting was made on wood, divided into two panels (a diptych).  From left to right Durer painted the four apostles who were instrumental to the idea of Protestantism. On the extreme left stands St. John, a saint often mentioned by Luther in his works. To his right there is St. Peter who holds the golden key to the Church[vi]. The right panel shows St. Mark dressed in black and St. Paul who is regarded as the father of Protestant faith. The simple depiction is symbolic enough to show how the believers of Catholicism eschewed their faith and were led to a new religious order by the Saints of the Restoration. St. Peter, who is overshadowed by St. John holding the Bible, sends the symbolic message of the supremacy of the scripture over the Church which was the fundamental basis of Protestantism. It is St. Paul’s words that influenced Luther and acted upon his theses. The painting wasn’t a commission; it was made by Durer on his own and put up in the town hall of Nuremberg. The Saints together transmit the word of God adding to the importance of God’s words in the scripture, not their distorted versions propagated by the Catholic priests.


Fig 9, St. Jerome in the wilderness

Albrecht Durer’s rendition of the virtuous saint bears similarities with Patinir’s Saint Jerome in The Desert. Durer’s version puts more emphasis on the saint himself which is highlighted by the vast expanse of the landscape in the background. However, Durer doesn’t idolize the Saint’s image at all. The lion being a symbol associated with Saint Jerome represents the amalgamation of unrealistic themes with realism. The painting stands for the sacrifice and human attributes of the Saint rather than shrouding it in a halo of mysticism.

The word ‘Protestant’ has a precise and widely known origin and poses no problem of meaning or usage. It started with Luther’s posting of his ninety five theses on the door of the Church of Wittenberg and gradually seeped into the fields of art. The primary cause was to attack the corruption of the Catholic Church and bring religion closer to man.  However, Protestantism didn’t remain a monolithic discipline and split into factions headed by other reformers of the religion[vii]. Protestantism in general condemned the practice of Indulgence, a prerogative of Catholic priests and the idea of transubstantiation, the divine claim that wafer and wine placed before the altar are transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ. Protestantism emphasized the concept of individual faith and the theory of ‘sola scriptura’ (the word of God in the Bible is the ultimate authority). These ideas somehow converge in the paintings of contemporary painters. The seeds of dissent however, were rooted in the earlier generation of artists who acted as precursors to the painters who translated Protestant virtues in their works. A certain movement became evident in the works of some painters of the Low Countries who countered the inflated, glorified depictions of the divine found in the high renaissance paintings. This movement from conventional mode of painting brought art closer to the realm of the earth, releasing it from the fetters of religious orthodoxy.









[i] ‘Protestant Reformation Art’ ,Encyclopedia of Art History.




[ii] David Carrier, ‘Naturalism and Allegory in Flemish Painting’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.




[iii]Ed, Stafford Linda, Romain James . Critical Methods of Seeing Christianity in the History of Art



[iv] ‘Parable of the Blind by Pieter Brueghel the Elder’, Encyclopedia of Art History .




[v] ‘Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Brueghel’ Encyclopedia of Art History.




[vi] ‘Albricht Durer’s The Four Apostles, A Masterpiece That Promoted Reason’ , BryanTowens.org



[vii] Eugene F Rice Jr, Anthony Grafton. The Foundations of Early Modern Europe,1460-1559. New York: Norton and Company. 2006.


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